Sleeping Giant Provincial Park

Silver and the Sleeping Giant

Dispatch and Photo by Ryan Edwardson 

“Geology is just a series of little catastrophes.” Pointing toward the layers of shale, retired geophysicist and year-round resident of Silver Islet—and our new friend—Scott explained how millions of years of geological collisions and magma flows had given Silver Islet its foundation. And, in turn, the shiny metallic by-product for which the islet received its name.

Silver Islet is a rocky wind-torn community of old timber rail buildings and recent vinyl-sided cabins perched on the edge of Lake Superior.

Yet what is now a quiet and for many a seasonal locale was once (or twice, possibly three times, based on how you measure it) an intriguing player in the silver industry. Actually, within view from the shoreline, Silver Islet refers even more so to an offshore rocky island only 50 meters square in size and a mere two and a half meters above the waterline—a tiny chunk of land protruding from the sea and promising a bounty of silver. In fact, it is said that between the late 1860s and early 1880s, over the course of a mere decade and a half, $3.25 million worth of silver was extracted from its depths.

Legend has it that Nanabijou, the Spirit of the Deep Sea Water, first revealed the secret source of the silver to the Chief of the Ojibway, on the promise his people would ensure the information never fell into the hand of outsiders, especially “the White Man.” If that ever occurred, the Chief was warned, Nanabijou would be turned into stone! The Ojibway nobly held the secret thus, until a series of events occurred that revealed it to another tribe, and then to the White Man. Nanabijou was consequently turned to stone—and he is the Sleeping Giant we see today.

Silver, with its entrancing beauty and exalted value, is a cornerstone of the legend. Before traversing the Sleeping Giant, one thus has to first appreciate Silver Islet.

Historical records point to silver being discovered on the islet circa 1845, although the harsh waters of Lake Superior prevented its excavation. Another two decades passed before significant investment was made in building breakwaters and a pumping system that allowed for mining to properly take place.

The excavated earth made its way to the edge of the islet and its size grew tenfold as the rate of mining increased. By 1883 the silver, in what Scott described to us as having been like an “elevator shaft” running down from the shoal, began to thin out. This decline in silver, along with a fateful—and “possibly intentional,” Scott hinted—delayed shipment of coal needed to power the water pumps, in turn allowing the 384-meter-deep shafts to be flooded, brought an end to the heyday of Silver Islet.

Looking across the water toward a little island overrun with trees, one would have no idea that beneath its surface rested the remnants of a silver mining bonanza.

Long gone are the small handful of buildings that clawed onto the edge of the islet. Yet back on the mainland, there is an echo that resonates among the pinewood-planked cabins and the General Store that had earlier been the original mining company shop.

Before making my way on this trip, I had seen Silver Islet described by an online blogger as a ghost town. But as we listened to Scott share his geological insights and stories about the community, his dog Luna running circles around us, and curious locals leaning out of their windows to wave hello, that description was far from apt. Rather, Silver Islet is a community with deep history, and though maybe not brimming with occupants, consumer conveniences or even communication signals, has roots that extend deep into the shale.

The silver mine may be history—but this community, like the Sleeping Giant himself, is not going anywhere anytime soon. 

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